The Goo Goo Dolls at the Santa Barbara Bowl (July 16, 2016)
Paul Wellman

Johnny Rzeznik couldn’t remember if he had rocked the Bowl before. However, as the Goo Goo Dolls front man explained, the moment he walked onstage, he quickly realized that — yes, indeed! — he had played this venue years ago. “This is too pretty,” he remarked, mere moments after sunset.

As he had discussed in an Independent interview earlier this month, Rzeznik (alluding to past substance abuse) got to the point where he had to “clean up my house, metaphorically speaking.” He had created misery for himself and for everyone around him as he underwent a long stretch of disconnect: from friends, family, even his band, which, two decades ago, had occupied the upper regions of Billboard’s charts.

Now armed with fresh material from Boxes, their 11th album, the members of the Goo Goo Dolls appeared fit, youthful, energetic, maybe reinvigorated as they tore into a clutch of their most beloved crowd-pleasers—plus new songs —just off Milpas.

It was easy to see why Rzeznik, with his alternative rock-ready, pretty-boy looks and gravely rasp, led Goo Goo Dolls to a nice chunk of success from the mid to late 1990s. The band excelled at mid-tempo emo rockers with enough acoustic guitars shadowing the electric ones and downbeat violin strains to give their sweeping brand of rock a rustic melancholy that might have been like catnip to scores of young women.

Early in their robust set last weekend, Goo Goo Dolls performed “Slide,” one of their biggest singles (off Dizzy Up the Girl, the 1998 album that cemented the Buffalo, New York group’s career), which had ladies in the crowd singing along verbatim. “We’ll get most of it right tonight, here we go!” Rzeznik exclaimed as they launched into “Long Way Down”; its chorus resembling a distant relative to Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” — although the Crue may be too hardcore a reference to drop, as the Goo Goo tunes, at their fullest throttle, get about as frisky as a Bon Jovi rocker.

Rzeznik and his band kept the momentum going, following up “Long Way Down” with “Rebel Beat” and continuing onward with its inevitable march toward “Iris,” the monster chart-topper off of the soundtrack of the faintly remembered Nicolas Cage/Meg Ryan-starrer City of Angels (a 1998 Hollywoodization of a Wim Wenders film).

Plucky lead guitarist Robby Takac stepped in to handle lead vocals on a pair of early songs: the vaguely punk, duel-electric guitar onslaught of “Smash” and the bustling “Bringing on the Light”

After Takac’s turn, Rzeznik, with acoustic guitar in hand, returned to the mic. Perhaps part damage control, he asked the audience, “How you doing? You good, you good?”; as if to take the audience’s pulse and see their condition following his two-song absence. If Takac’s rougher-hewn, less-sexy vocals had alienated some audience members or sent a few on a beer run, the moment Rzeznik played the opening notes of what he explained was the band’s first song to get radio airplay, everything seemed right in the world. The crowd just lost it, giving the front man pause.

“So you know what I’m going to play?” Rzeznik asked, receiving a wall of cheers in response. “So what’s the point of playing it?”

After performing “Name,” Rzeznik continued to playfully interact with concertgoers. He donned the tiara of a birthday girl in the audience that had caught his eye. After tossing it back, he delved deep into “So Alive,” the first single off their new album. “I’m so alive, I’m so alive, I’m so alive!,” he sang emphatically.

Perhaps Rzeznik was truly feeling those words again.


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